Avatar The Last Airbender - Map

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Avatar The Last Airbender - Poster

Avatar: The Last Airbender is a kid’s show that, on the surface, seems a bit simple. The setup is based on the four elements. Fire, Water, Earth, and Air; each of these have their own nation, populated by “benders” who are able to manipulate their particular element. The benders can shoot rocks, tsunamis, hurricanes, and fireballs. They can change the course of rivers, create armor out of boulders, raise pillars of fire, and sail through the air as casually as we blow our noses. And, naturally, they fight each other. Through epic battles reminiscent of the craziest that the Star Wars Jedi Masters can offer, the various benders flip into combat with arcs of fire and lightning, whips made out of water, and more.

The setting is also basic on the surface level. All four of the elemental nations lived in peace for countless years, watched over by an “Avatar”, a guardian figure able to wield all the four of the elements at the same time. For reasons unknown, the Avatar eventually disappeared. In his absence, the newly aggressive Fire Nation attacked and have slowly been conquering and subjugating all of the other nations, even going so far as to completely wipe the Air Nation from the face of the earth. The story begins with two young waterbenders, Katara and Sokka, in the icy north, suddenly finding and coming face to face with Aang, the reincarnated new Avatar, who is destined to save the world from the Fire Nation and restore the balance as it once was.

The concept of the elements and a setting like that are pretty cool. When I was a kid, I would have definitely perked up at the idea of elemental warriors facing off in grandiose grudge matches. But these alone aren’t enough to distinguish Avatar: The Last Airbender as something beyond the norm. Which it definitely is.

Avatar The Last Airbender - The Gang in Earth Colors

What Makes it Special?

As I watched through the show, I found myself making comparisons to other movies and TV shows I had seen that had entertained me even as an adult. Paramount among these was The Emperor’s New Groove. For those who haven’t seen it (and, really, you should go see it RIGHT NOW), The Emperor’s New Groove is a movie about an emperor being forced to learn how to empathize with other people by living among them as a llama. What made it really special, though, was its remarkable capacity for tongue-in-cheek humor that makes the movie as hilariously entertaining for adults as it is for the kids. It takes one hell of a gifted writer to make something that can genuinely appeal to all ages, and The Emperor’s New Groove pulled it off in spades, making for one of the most adored and revisited Disney movies of all time.

Avatar: The Last Airbender reaches for those same heights and makes it happen. The characters are comical, self-effacing, hilarious, and witty. What’s more, they feel real. Aang is a ten year-old hyperactive chipmunk of a kid who only wants to have fun, and his character arc has him learning that he can both embrace that side of himself while still facing the threat of the Fire Nation with mature seriousness. Katara is caring nurturer of a girl who has to master her own inclination to mother and protect everyone while still living her own life as a young teenage waterbender. Sokka is a perpetually sarcastic jokester who discovers how to become less cynical and get over his feeling of inferiority for not being able to bend. The characters have depth, and you get to know them and empathize with their human desires. To the point where their day-to-day lives become more engrossing and fulfilling than their quest to save the world itself. You can tell the characters are well written when it gets to that point!

Avatar The Last Airbender - Azula vs Zuko

Bad Guys and Badasses

What’s more is that, with only one exception, this also applies to the antagonists themselves. It’s arguable that Zuko, the face of villainy for most of the show, goes through more character development than any other in the entire series. An exiled Fire prince determined to regain his honor by capturing the Avatar, Zuko and his uncle, Iroh, end up having one of the more unique adventures that has them exploring a far more morally gray area than you would expect. Zuko has to confront issues such as how to tame his anger and how to deal with complicated relationships with his sister and father. He’s a traumatized soul who has to learn how to fix himself. I point this out because, on top of the New Groove-esque humor, there are characters who go through the same genuinely difficult trials that we ourselves might have went through as children and go through even today. The result is to make Avatar: The Last Airbender feel both humorous, entertaining, as well as deep and thought-provoking. That’s a rare combo for a kid’s show!

The last thing that makes the show freaking awesome to watch is how creatively they approach the elemental “bending” that I mentioned earlier. It’s hard to put into words, but it isn’t rare to have a fight break out where Aang summons up a stone wall to deflect a fireball, flies over it with a gust of wind, slams the enemy off his feet with a surge of water, and then kick-twirls around rings of fire to keep the bad guy running frantically backwards. The creators take full advantage of all the craziest possible shenanigans these elements are capable of, and then mixes them into insane martial arts face-offs that have combatants soaring about on jets of fire, tossing about ice shards like candies, throwing mountains at each other, drop-kicking tornadoes at each other, and more. Thus it is that, along with the aforementioned reasons to love the show, you’ve got one incredible fight scene after another to keep your eyes glued to the action.

Avatar The Last Airbender - Aang

Criticisms

Overall, I loved this show, but I can’t help critiquing areas where I thought it could have been better. Consequently, this area will be *SPOILER HEAVY*. Read on at your own risk!

I think that there are two main reasons why this show didn’t quite reach the level of The Emperor’s New Groove in my eyes. My first complaint involves a lack of subtlety. I felt like, half the time if not more often, Avatar: The Last Airbender had an irritating habit of becoming anvilicious. For those too lazy to click the link, “anvilicious” is the TV Tropes word for a show that is a bit too blatant about pounding a message into your head. My key Avatar example is that one episode where you had the two tribes that are completely different; one was super nitpicky clean and the other was really dirty casual, and they fought all the time. The moment you saw these guys, you just knew that Aang would somehow find a way to make them get along (because why can’t we be friennnnnds?!) as that’s the way the stories go. To the show’s credit, Aang’s first effort fails (which gives the conflict resolution message a bit more nuance), but overall it still felt just way too obvious. It was in moments like these that I felt loudly reminded that I was watching a kid’s show. I think that more subtlety could have helped in moments like this, and many others besides, to maintain the more varied and deep feeling of the other parts of the show.

Avatar The Last Airbender - Fire Lord Ozai

My second complaint involves the character of Fire Lord Ozai. This is the main villain, the head honcho, the ultimate baddie who Aang and his friends have been training to confront from day one. Given how the show deftly handled Fire Nation antagonists like Zuko, Azula, Mai, Ty Lee, Iroh, and more, we would expect a bit of backstory into why Ozai feels the need to conquer and subjugate the rest of the nations like he does. Instead, we quite literally know more about his dead grandfather, Fire Lord Sozin, than we do about Ozai himself. Ozai comes off as a laughing nefarious megalomaniac of a villain, determined at the end to commit earthbender genocide just because they’re getting a bit uppity.

It’s hard for me to explain just how much this development soured the show for me. Don’t get me wrong; I still loved watching all of Avatar: The Last Airbender. But I can’t stop thinking about how stupid the character of Ozai was and how many questions arose from seeing that, along with the weirdness of parts of the grand finale. For example, why on earth are the Fire Nation people happy with this leader who wants to destroy and dominate the world? In the episode where they have the satirical play that humorously retells the story of Aang’s group, the Fire Nation audience gets up and cheers when Ozai wins and melodramatically declares that, “The world is MINE!” Picture me going, “Wait, what?!” There was never any reason why the average Fire Nation citizen should have been excited at any point by what Ozai was doing, as they never seemed to get any special benefits or promises beyond the citizens of other nations. And don’t get me started on that finale, as I still don’t quite know what the hell was going on when Aang and Ozai started turning red and blue and, at the last second, we were informed that somehow “spiritbending” was something that existed. Ugh!

*END SPOILERS*

Avatar The Last Airbender - Demotivational

Conclusion

All in all, I loved Avatar: The Last Airbender and, despite its relatively minor flaws, it’s definitely a show that I would recommend. Parents, this series is one that you can enjoy while still keeping the little imps happy too. And I already went into how rare it is to find that!

Last but not least, Iroh is the coolest character of all time and, the moment I finished the show, I went out and got myself some tea. There’s nothing more awesome than that.

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7 thoughts on “Avatar: The Last Airbender”

  1. Iroh is absolutely incredible. Even a the change of voice actors couldn’t spoil anything about him. I wonder if Ozai wasn’t left that way on purpose. So many conflicts, both in stories and real life, are driven simply by the tradition of conflict. We often see no reason for it, and it comes across as silly. When compared against his children, who both have well defined reasons to continue or oppose the conflict, it really felt like Ozai was embodying that blind, tradition driven hate that seems to have no logical backing and just seems silly to the rest of us. I know this explanation seems a little blunt and unsophisticated, but the show does have a history of being a little blunt with its messages – which is why I wouldn’t be surprised if this is why they did it.

    Have you checked out “The Legend of Korra”? I have heard mixed things about it and would be really interested to hear your opinion, if you have watched it.

    1. You make a good point; I was just surprised that there wasn’t even the slightest hint of a good side to Ozai at all. Realistically, even the most hatred obsessed people have redeeming qualities to them, however minute. Even Azula, who is arguably even worse than Ozai on some levels, had us understanding that she was ‘evil’ because she thought that this is how she would get approval from her father. And we end up empathizing with her on some level when we see that, no matter how brilliant a firebender she is, she is completely fruitless at getting along with other people socially (seen most clearly in “The Beach”). By contrast, the only possible reason we have to sympathize with Ozai is when they find that picture of him as a baby. And that just wasn’t enough to make me find him at all interesting beyond his status as a boring old-school nefarious cackling villain. Though I definitely understand your argument! He just stood out a little too weirdly for me.

      The Legend of Korra is on my list! I’m going to take a break from the Airbender world for now, but I’ll definitely get around to it at some point in the not-too-distant future. :)

      1. Well put, and I’ll be waiting anxiously for your review. Haven’t got to it yet myself, so looking for some motivation or demotivation haha

  2. Yaaaay! So glad you enjoyed it.

    I agree about the “over the top” episode wrap-ups that the show has. In the end, it is still a kid’s show, and I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that was evident here. Completely, and I think that’s why subtlety is not more of an aspect, because otherwise, some kids wouldn’t get it. Especially the younger ones. One of my close friends has a niece who completely wants to be Aang. I think when she watched the show, she was four. Definitely not going to pick up on the more nuanced topics of the show, but able to get the jist.

    I actually advised a client of mine whose kids like the show to NOT have them watch the movie, until they told me that they DID watch it and like it…sooooo there ya go (they named their cat Sokka or Katara). Children under 6 may still like the movie even if the adults will hate it (aaand they will). So don’t tell the kids.

    I think the Fire Nation standing up against everyone else for no apparent reason is stupid, but I think that’s the point. I mean, historically speaking, we can all think (and this even includes the fictional Greyjoy revolution in Game of Thrones) of a time when a certain group of people found themselves “superior” and fought back against, well, the rest of the world. Because…why not? So yeah, I thought it was dumb too, but I felt the point was that sometimes you don’t understand why enemies are there, they just are. Dumb? Yes. Present in our culture? Totally.

    Prince Zuko is great, and I think his relationship with Aang is a good one. I feel that the elements represented can definitely define the groups: Zuko gets angry easily, Aang is up in the air and miles ahead (sometimes literally), Katara can be moody or completely still, and Toph is stubborn as a rock.

    1. I’m always of the mind that kids are smarter than we think and that, even if they didn’t understand subtler messages, they’d still get a huge kick out of the colorfully wild fight scenes, fun characters, and great humor. It’s been a while since I was a kid, but I think that children get to a point really fast where they get tired of really obvious messages being force fed to them through their entertainment.

      Though, then again, the kids you mentioned apparently loved the movie, so there’s that. :P

      You make a great point about “superior” cultures forcing themselves on the rest of the world just because they have the power and because they can. I guess I just found it really weird that that’s the only rationale we can pin onto Ozai, and that he was never given any sympathetic characteristics like every other villain. In our history, even Hitler had a side to him wasn’t all “I’m going to conquer the world and toss about Jewish genocide!” He was also a staunch vegetarian, promoted an anti-smoking campaign throughout Germany, got rid of the German unemployment problems, and built new infrastructure (buildings, schools, bridges, roads) throughout his country. All showing that, even though we rightly regard Hitler as one of the most horrible people to have ever lived, he was still a human who cared for other humans on some level. With Fire Lord Ozai, we don’t even get that. He’s just a maniacal loony wanting to dominate the world just for himself. And that just doesn’t jive with how people work, and stood out for me as a lazily written character in a series with a plethora of great ones.

      Great point about the elements matching the temperaments, by the way. I totally hadn’t thought about it like that, but it’s so true!

  3. Well, there are some fanatic leaders whom when they gain power got so obsessed with them that they were insane. All they think about is to stay in power. As far as I had know Pol pot from Cambodia is an example. He would kill anyone that he deemed as a traitor regardless of where the facts or rumor comes from. His party is his family while anyone other than that who upsets or “threaten” him in any manners will be terminated without any question at all.

    Ozai was almost the same, his nation is his family, while any other who refused to be one with him shall be crushed. Of course, his people will never question his motives, they aren’t treated badly, they felt superior and their nation is very very strong in many ways and they are very prosperous, as opposed to Cambodia where people are dirt poor which lead to the fall Pol Pot. So yea, people will definitely respect Ozai for what he had did to his people and nation. What more, is that he does not need to promised his people anything because they had already achieved them. The sense of belonging is probably strong too and most of all, there were propaganda’s in school that promotes utmost loyalties which if I remember correctly there were an episode about it.

    Not to mention, the people in power are trained as a merciless militant which stays true in some other countries. They do not questioned orders because they either work as one mind or risked their lives. In other words, those who had a mind of their own probably never survive the day to convinced anyone to follow them.

    Lastly, they probably just skipped the extensive part of explaining the whys.I mean, it is too dark and involves too much politics. And, its still consider a kid show. Showing them the borderline between good and bad is probably not in the book of our current society.

    But, I really love the show though, I mean, it really is deep compared to so many other cartoons or animations I had watched.

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